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Caucasus Report: August 18, 1998

18 August 1998, Volume 1, Number 25

Two's Company, Three's a Crowd? Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev's invitation to his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian to attend an EU-sponsored conference in Baku next month on the TRACECA project has served to focus attention on the prospects for, and limitations on, cooperation among the three Transcaucasus states, and between them and the republics of the North Caucasus.

Azerbaijan and Georgia are linked by their shared determination to promote, and profit from, the export of Caspian oil and gas via Georgia, and have aligned informally with Ukraine and Moldova to pursue converging economic and security interests. Georgia is also cautiously exploring the potential for economic cooperation with Chechnya, and has signaled an interest in proposals floated by Chechen officials last summer for either a pan-Caucasus inter-parliamentary assembly or a regional security organization modelled on the OSCE (see "End Note," "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 September 1997).

Armenia, however, reacted to most such regional initiatives with restraint. Three weeks ago, President Kocharian termed his Georgian colleague Eduard Shevardnadze's "Peaceful Caucasus" initiative (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol.1, No. 17, 23 June 1998) "attractive as a slogan and an aim," but expressed doubt that it could be implemented in the near future. Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian was more blunt, telling journalists in Washington in June that Azerbaijan constitutes a major obstacle to Armenian engagement in regional initiatives, refusing to participate in any such projects jointly with Armenia.

Instead, Armenia has in recent months been expanding bilateral cooperation with Georgia, primarily in the transportation sector. Not only is Georgia Armenia's closest outlet to the sea; Georgia is also one of the focal points of the entire TRACECA project. Launched five years ago by the three Transcaucasian and five Central Asian Soviet successor states (Ukraine and Mongolia joined in 1996), that initiative encompasses the creation of an EU-funded east-west transport corridor linking Central Asia with Europe via the Caucasus as a means of supporting the political and economic independence of the countries in question by enhancing their capacity to access European and world markets, and encouraging further regional cooperation between them. And the fact that TRACECA is sponsored by the EU limits Azerbaijan's power to thwart Armenian participation. (Whether Aliev's insistence that the September conference should be held in Baku, rather than Tbilisi as originally planned, was a deliberate attempt to deter Armenian attendance is an open question.)

To date, the Armenian government has submitted eight projects for inclusion in the overall TRACECA program, financing for two of which has already been approved. Two months ago American Armenian billionnaire Kirk Kerkorian pledged $85 million towards the cost of a south-north highway from Iran via Armenia to Georgia's Black Sea ports of Poti and Batumi. That highway would constitute the shortest overland route between the Persian Gulf and the Black Sea, and thus complement the planned TRACECA road and ferry network. It is hoped that the EU will provide the remaining funding for the Armenian highway project, for which Shevardnadze has expressed his support. (Liz Fuller)

Armenian Political Elite Divided Over Kocharian Invitation To Baku President Kocharian's 12 August announcement that he had declined Aliev's invitation to attend the September TRACECA conference in Baku failed to end the ongoing debate in Yerevan over whether or not it was appropriate for him to do so. Some of the arguments for and against were elucidated by the two participants in a roundtable discussion moderated by RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau last week.

Presidential foreign policy advisor, Aram Sarkisian, explained that after weighing all the pros and cons, the Armenian leadership had decided that it was expedient that Prime Minister Armen Darpinian should attend the conference in Kocharian's place, especially given that not all countries invited will be represented by their respective heads of state. Sarkisian reasoned that Kocharian's participation would add an overtly political dimension to what is first and foremost an economic forum. Sarkisian added that what he termed "anti-Armenian hysteria in the Azerbaijani press" would turn Kocharian's presence at the conference into "a political show." (The Azerbaijan Popular Front Party has criticized the invitation to President Kocharian as "a manifestation of disrespect for the Azerbaijani nation"; its chairman, Abulfaz Elchibey, vowed that the party "will certainly not allow" Kocharian to come to Baku.) Sarkisian said the "atmosphere in Baku" may deter Aliyev from paying the appropriate respect to his Armenian counterpart at the airport, in accordance with diplomatic protocol.

The second roundtable participant, the chairman of the "Hayrenik" parliament faction, Eduard Yegorian, said he understands Sarkisian's arguments, but argued that they are of "secondary" importance and are outweighed by the potential benefits of a presidential visit to Azerbaijan. "A visit by Robert Kocharian would be a gesture of Armenia's readiness for friendship, it would demonstrate Armenia's good will and show to the world that we support the peace process," he affirmed. Yegorian dismissed concerns about Baku's adherence to diplomatic protocol, saying "It's their problem."

Yegorian further warned that Armenia is under threat of being "isolated" from developments surrounding the TRACECA project, and that "We are now on the brink of being disqualified." He argued that "International highways [linking Europe to Asia] must run across Armenia. If they bypass us, there will be a real danger of international isolation." This would deal a severe blow to Armenian interests in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. "We shouldn't be passive ... We must avoid the status of an aggrieved country." Participation in TRACECA is primarily a "political issue," not an economic one, Yegorian concluded. (Emil Danielyan/Liz Fuller)

Clemency For Kitovani? Several prominent Georgian political figures have proposed that the eight-year prison sentence passed in 1996 on former Georgian Defense Minister Tengiz Kitovani be reviewed. Together with Djaba Ioseliani, leader of the infamous Mkhedrioni paramilitary formation, Kitovani was instrumental in precipitating the ouster in January 1992 of President Zviad Gamsakhurdia and the subsequent return to Tbilisi of Eduard Shevardnadze. He was arrested in January 1995 in what was said to be an attempt to launch a military intervention with the aim of restoring Abkhazia to Georgian control, and was sentenced on charges of creating an illegal military force.

Several Georgian observers commented at the time that Kitovani's arrest and trial were merely a pretext to neutralize an individual perceived as a possible rival to Shevardnadze. Deputy Parliament chairman Giorgi Kobakhidze and National Security Council Deputy Secretary Rusudan Beridze both indicated in recent weeks that they will raise with Shevardnadze the issue of a pardon for Kitovani, who is in poor health following a heart attack and hunger strike, and Caucasus Press reported on 14 August that he may be released within the next two weeks. (Liz Fuller)

Quotes Of The Week "The Abkhaz problem continues to remain the Achilles' heel of the head of state. And I doubt whether Shevardnadze will be able to change this before the parliamentray [1999] and presidential [2000] elections." -- Union of Traditionalists chairman Akaki Asatiani, in "Obshchaya gazeta," 6-12 August, 1998. "I do not want anyone to assume that I was born with a rifle in my hands, but I believe that the 'Bosnian option' is the only means to resolve the problem of Abkhazia." -- Abkhaz parliament in exile chairman Tamaz Nadareishvili, quoted by Caucasus Press, 16 August 1998.

Observation Of The Week "Stability is not necessarily a convergence of interests, it can also be achieved by mutual respect for [each others' interests]. Insofar as the situation in the [Transcaucasus] region can be compared not even with the balancing [of diverging interests], but with a system for balancing numerous interests -- variable interests, I would add -- for that reason the capacity for respecting mutual interests should be adopted as a shared priority." -- Armenian President Robert Kocharian, in an interview with "Noviye Izvestiya," 13 August 1998.